The human instinct for self-preservation is powerful. So it makes sense that we have a deep-seated fear of contagious disease. That’s part of the reason, for instance, that the recent news about Ebola in West Africa (and a few cases elsewhere) is so frightening. Ebola is a deadly virus and it’s contagious. So it’s only natural that we fear it.
That fear is certainly understandable, so it’s realistic when you see it in a novel. It can also add a great deal of tension to a story. Here are just a few examples. I know you’ll be able to think of more than I could anyway.
In Charles Dickens’ day, there were many illnesses people feared. One of them was smallpox, and we see that as part of the plot in Bleak House. The central plot of that novel concerns the Jarndyce case, a dispute over a will that’s been going round the Court of Chancery for generations. The novel traces the lives of some of the people concerned in that case, including philanthropist John Jarndyce, who’s distantly related to one of the original parties to the dispute. He takes an interest in the well-being of an orphan Esther Summerson, and arranges for her to be hired as companion to Ada Clare, who is also distantly connected to the Jarndyce case. The two women get on very well together, and Esther builds a solid life for herself. As it turns out, she is also connected to the Jarndyce case, and as the novel moves on, we see how the lives of these people, and some others also linked to that case, intersect. While this isn’t always considered a crime novel, there is murder involved, and a police inspector who investigates the case. There is also trouble in the offing for Esther. At one point in the novel, she helps nurse a sick young boy back to health. The result is that she becomes ill herself with what is likely smallpox. It leaves her with permanent physical scars, and while she goes on with her life, it’s a solid example of why so many people feared that particular contagious illness.
The worldwide influenza pandemic that broke out after World War I was also frightening to many people. We see a bit of that fear in Chris Womersley’s Bereft. Quinn Walker returns to his home in Flint, New South Wales, after serving in the Somme during The Great War. He’s hoping for the chance to rest and heal from the physical and emotional wounds he’s suffered. But he finds that Flint is far from a peaceful place right now. The influenza pandemic has reached his home town and even touched his family, as his own mother has fallen ill. Everyone’s frightened by the illness. Walker knows that he’s not welcome in his own home in any case, since many people, including his father, believe that he’s responsible for the murder of his sister ten years earlier. So he hides out in an abandoned shack. There he meets a young girl Sadie Fox who’s also hiding. With her help, Walker starts to get past his scars and he discovers what really happened to his sister. He also finds the courage to get word to his mother that he’s alive.
Caroline and Charles Todd, who write as Charles Todd, also use the influenza pandemic as a theme in An Unmarked Grave. In that novel, World War I battlefield nurse Bess Crawford has become accustomed to dealing with soldiers who’ve been wounded in combat. But as the pandemic begins in 1918, she finds herself and her colleagues overwhelmed with influenza patients as well. There’s special concern too because this illness has also spread to some of those caring for patients, which makes it all the more dangerous. Then, the body of a soldier who’s been hidden among the influenza patients is discovered. His identification’s been removed, so it’s hard to know who he is. But it’s clear that he’s been murdered. And it turns out that he’s a friend of Crawford’s family too. Moved by the death, Crawford wants to find out who killed the man and why, but now she faces a major complication: she’s caught influenza herself, and may not live long enough to solve the murder.
In Thomas N. Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor, we are introduced to Dr. Calvin Doohan, a Scottish transplant to San Francisco. When Doohan learns of an outbreak of a virulant influenza-type virus, he volunteers his services to the local Public Health Department to track down the source of the virus and try to contain it. The Centers for Disease Control, in the form of Dr. Suzanne Synge, join the local team and work begins in earnest to try to stop this outbreak. After patient interviews and other medical detective work, it’s established that many of those affected attended a convention at the Hotel Cordoba. The team also discovers that this particular illness was spread deliberately. Now Doohan is faced not just with the challenge of trying to contain the illness, but also with the challenge of finding out who’s responsible. And when he finds that out, he also discovers that there are people in important places who do not want anyone to know the truth.
Those who’ve read Robin Cook’s medical thrillers will know that several of his novels include the plot theme of a virus that’s deliberately spread. One example comes in Outbreak. Oh, and as a side note, the novel is nothing like the 1995 Wolfgang Peterson film with Dustin Hoffman, Morgan Freeman and Rene Russo. The plot of the novel is quite different. In it, a dangerous illlness seems to be spreading through the Los Angeles-based Richter Clinic. The Los Angeles health authorities ask for help from Atlanta’s Center’s for Disease Control, which sends Dr. Marissa Blumenthal. After a short time, Blumenthal and her team establish that these patients are dying from the highly contagious Ebola virus. The team manage to stop that particular outbreak, but soon there’s another, this time in St. Louis. Then there’s an outbreak in Phoenix. Now it’s clear that someone or some group is spreading the illness deliberately. Blumenthal slowly tracks down the truth, and discovers a deadly conspiracy.
With today’s straightforward air travel and regular contact among people at gatherings, it’s quite easy to imagine a quick and deadly spread of illness. And as we know from recent news, it happens. The fear of that sort of contagion is real, and that’s part of why this plot point can add suspense to a crime novel as well.
On another note, the vast majority of you folks who are kind enough to read this blog are in no danger from the current Ebola outbreak. But thousands of people have already died from it, and more probably will. There are many health professionals who’ve donated their time to fight Ebola in West Africa, which is a lot more than I would have the courage to do. You can help them in their work. One of these groups is Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). You can check them out and support what they do right here.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Van Halen.